One Level Down
(writing prompt: you board an elevator of strangers and someone says “thank you all for coming”— I just kind of ran with this one lol I didn't take it too seriously)
“So I bet you are wondering why I’ve asked you here,” said the woman in the red overcoat.
I had been planning this specific trip to my university’s library for about two weeks now. I had placed a hold on a rare copy of a book you could only read in-house, and I had been notified of the date of my viewing. It was in a temperature-controlled basement room, and to be honest, I had been feeling pretty great about the whole experience. Like this made me a Real Scholar, or something.
It was a book on the archeological findings at a famous site in China. I was writing a paper on how a report provided by women versus men often offered different focal points of the ideas of the ancient society, or different perspectives on that society all together. For example, you might get a bigger focus in a report on home life rather than warfare. That was the department’s hope, anyway. This was of course a research question posed by the department, and I had been wondering what on earth could be so different in two reports filed on the finding of a hairbrush, but anyway. The temperature-controlled room sounded cool, and I was all about that academic aesthetic. I kind of felt like it was part of some Indiana Jones movie, doing research of relics and ancient peoples, being involved in the ongoing discourse around history, the relationship between a person digging up some ancient artifact in a remote land, and then tourists paying pocket change to stare at it for five seconds.
So, you can imagine my surprise when, crammed on an old elevator with several other people in various states of exhaustion, digging for gum in my overflowing backpack to eradicate the taste of crappy cafeteria coffee on my breath, the woman spoke.
No one said anything for a couple seconds.
“Really, no one is curious?” She pressed.
“We got your memo, ma’am,” said one of the young men in a baggy sweatshirt.
“Didn’t think to question it,” said another.
“Headquarters told me yesterday, I flew out immediately,” said a girl in a voice simply dripping with a thirst to prove herself. It’s worth mentioning that we were six Americans standing in an elevator in London, England.
“Good,” said the woman in the red coat.
“Why a library,” whined the first boy. “I thought joining up meant a life of excitement, not…books.”
I had to hide my grin, not wanting to be caught. I don’t know if they knew I didn’t know what was happening, but I’ll tell you: I didn’t. I was intrigued though, and figured it wouldn’t hurt to pretend I was one of them for a little while.
“Well, I assume you all brought your paperwork with you, so we won’t waste any time getting started. I’ve booked the main room down here for one hour, so let’s be sharp, got it?” The woman in red spoke with an authority that was positively presidential. We fell in line like soldiers as the elevator doors creaked open, and she marched down a carpeted hall to what looked like a conference room.
I was beginning to question my new plan, realizing I’d miss my viewing of the book if I stayed too long with these strangers, when someone spoke in my ear. “I haven’t seen you before, but it’s nice to have another girl on the team. Wanna sit next to me?”
“Okay,” I whispered back.
“I’m Anna,” she said with a smile.
“Ivy,” I whispered back.
“Sit,” said the woman in the red coat, as we entered the conference room. She stood at the front and fired up her laptop, and had it projecting onto the screen in a couple of seconds. Images of old manuscripts and letters filled the screen, all too faint to read properly.
“So, I want you to go around the room really quickly, tell me your names, and your departments,” she commanded, turning quickly to the young man sitting to her left.
“Brandon, fact checking,” he said.
“Adam, restoration,” said the one who had whined that it was a library job.
“Jake, archeology.” This one shocked me, since he was dressed like a stoner that thought pop music would be the death of culture but was secretly in love with Taylor Swift. Maybe they were all disguised look like students, to blend on campus or something…
I gulped. I was sweating now, the skin behind my knees prickling inside my tights. Clearly this was some official thing – the power suit the boss lady had been hiding under her red coat was proof of that enough. The skater skirt I had on was okay, and my baggy green knit sweater hid the Captain America t-shirt underneath, and my combat boots hid my Dr. Who socks…but I still felt massively out of place. The space buns hairstyle really was the cherry on top. The epitome of e-girl wannabe, nerdy art student, who’d invited herself to this meeting. I gulped again. “Ivy, sociology,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t shake.
“Anna, state department,” the other girl said directly after I’d spoken. She looked polished too, like an intern at a high end tech company or something. Wait. Did she say state department?
“Great, and I’m Dr. Grayson, here on behalf of, well, a few people. Important people. Okay. Let’s get started. The short version is that the manuscripts you see on this screen are actually fakes, and we have to prove it. The long version is that they were pulled from a recent dig at a site said to house artifacts from the Byzantine empire, and they are to be displayed at the British Museum next month. It’s a political scheme. In essence, the scientists pushing these documents want to present them to the public as proof that an archaic and brutal form of biochemical warfare was commonly used before, in order to try to naturalize it into the minds of civilians, in hopes that if it’s used later they won’t deem it a warcrime that came out of nowhere.” With that, Dr. Grayson began handing out papers around the table, giving us a moment to digest.
What the hell had I walked into. I needed to go. I had to get out of there. But how was I supposed to leave without them knowing I didn’t belong? On the other hand, how was I supposed to sit here and listen to the rest of this and then try to walk away, having heard all their plans? Either way I felt like I was done for. I could feel the sweat prickling my armpits and the backs of my knees, and my toes felt slick inside my shoes. My stomach felt acidic, and I could feel it churning and roiling. I was sure Jake and Anna on either side of me could hear my heart palpitating and my breath coming in short, uneven rasps.
“Your handouts outline the task ahead of us. Of course the lawyers are already trying to handle the scientists putting this research forward as legitimate, so we’re not really going to focus on the publicity angle ourselves. Our focus is to prove that this document is a fake. We’re going to analyze it, and we’ll have to dig up some research on warfare of the time, but we’ll also be dispatching our own team to the dig site. We want to see what other artifacts or things they supposedly dug up there. Anything we can do to discredit this.”
“Right, so Brandon and I can team up, if you want,” Adam said.
“I’d hoped so. You two can work on trying to disprove the authenticity of these artifacts. They’re here actually, in the other room. Being cared for. The staff here put them in the maps room.”
Holy crap…what had I walked into. I had known choosing to go to university in London would be exiting, but I had never dreamed that I’d be in a meeting with American government officials disputing the authenticity of a relic relating to ancient warcrimes. I thought I’d be reading Shakespeare and arguing essays from Ophelia’s perspective…stuff like that. Saying that Lady Macbeth could be construed as a hero, given women’s issues of the times. Not…this.
“So, that leaves Jake, Anna, and Ivy,” Dr. Grayson was saying, “Perfect. We’ll get on the jet, and we should be at the dig in about three hours. You’ll be fitted with the proper tools, of course.”
Oh my god. Oh my god. Why had I followed them off that elevator?
An hour later I was seated between Jake and Anna on a very small airplane, taking off from Heathrow.
“So, state department, huh? Couldn’t stand to let actual scientists get some work done without a babysitter?” Jake tossed this scornfully at Anna, ignoring me who was awkwardly slumped in my seat and wishing I didn’t exist.
“Unsupervised scientists are exactly what created this mess, dumbo.”
“Wow, I can’t believe you called me that. Dumbo. Ouch. How am I going to be able to focus on my work, with a wound so deep?”
“Ugh,” Anna rolled her eyes, and turned to look out her window. And by god, I wish she hadn’t, because Jake turned to me instead.
“Cute hair, by the way. You blended in really well. Sociology, you said? What’s your area?” I gulped, my throat feeling like it was made of carpet. I was an introvert to begin with, so honest conversation with strangers posed enough of a challenge. But this was another beast entirely.
“Im interested in women’s suffrage,” I squeaked.
“Of course you are. No, I didn’t mean your disguise,” he said with a laugh. He must have mistaken my anxiety for anger, because he followed with “I mean, we’re all into women’s rights. Don’t get me wrong. I just meant…like…what’s your speciality, like why’d you get put on this specific case?”
I wracked my brains so hard I wondered if it was possible to inflict a concussion that way.
“I was in the middle of conducting research on how different teams of anthropologists or archeologists can influence the public image of ancient societies, based on publication and subsequent publicity.”
“Oh, so you’re from the office of public affairs, basically,” he said in a bored voice.
“Have you ever been to a dig before?” Anna asked, sounding politely interested. I simply shook my head.
“Okay, no worries, Jake and I can handle the grunt work, and you can focus on your write-up. I’m sure you’ve got a tight deadline for this.” I smiled appreciatively, blown away that my answer had satisfied them and terrified of making things worse.
“Wait, I thought Grayson said we weren’t covering the publicity, that they had lawyers on it,” Jake said.
“It’s more academics,” I said vaguely, and they nodded as though this meant something significant.
Thank the lord we spent the rest of the flight in relative silence, reading through the documents Grayson had handed out. They really just outlined procedures for the dig site, and our capacity there, but Anna had assured me I could just linger to a side with a laptop if I wanted.
We touched down in Genoa around three in the afternoon.
At least if it was my last day as a free citizen on this earth, I could say I’d gone to Italy with a frankly quite attractive scientist boy. Not a bad last day, as these things go. With mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it was absolutely breathtaking. If I hadn’t been in the middle of an hours-long panic attack, I think it would have been the best day of my life.
Off the plane, we got into an SUV right there on the tarmac, and as I watched the scenery slip from urban to rural I wondered what had inspired these fake scientists or whatever to even want to do this. What kind of biochemical warfare were they suggesting? Dr. Grayson hadn’t said, and none of the paperwork had said it either. I suppose the others back in London would decode it from the manuscripts, if that’s what they were doing, but…
“So you’re here to report on us, Anna tells me. I was wondering who you were," Grayson spoke in a quiet voice from the front seat. I said nothing, feeling like my throat was going to swell shut in panic. Was I busted? Would they tie rocks to my feet and toss me out to sea?
“I don’t blame you for not wanting to speak up until we were on our way. The bureaucrats never want the researchers involved, but then they get mad when the researchers say something they don’t like, so what’s the point? You may as well be here and get the proper intel.” She swivelled in the front seat to face me. “Don’t make me regret it, got it?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said in what I hoped was a winning voice. I saw a smirk tugging at the corners of Jake’s mouth, and tried to soothe the raging panic in my head and stomach.
The dig site was honestly kind of disappointing. I had built it up in my head to look like a whole government facility built on a crater in the ground, with tents, scaffolding, desks, the works. But nope. This was just a crater in the ground, with a couple of ropes spanning the width of it here and there, I guess to mark the split between sections or something. That, and a couple of stools and ladders, and it was your run-of-the-mill pit.
“You’ll want this. Don’t forget the back of the neck,” Jake said, handing me a tube of sunscreen.
“Oh, thanks,” I said, smirking as I took a bit and passed it on to Anna, who began vigorously rubbing some into her face and arms.
“Tools are in the trunk, I’ll be in the car as I have to update the Upstairs. Private phone call, you get it. Get to work,” Grayson said. Anna sprung into action. It was like she was racing Jake to get the tools and pick a spot first, wanting to beat him at every turn.
“You’re not even a real archeologist,” he grumbled, leaving my side to gather his equipment.
“Tell that to the state department,” she called, and he looked pissed that she’d heard.
“Which state, even?” He asked.
I said nothing, letting them bicker. I went to the trunk and peered in, seeing a stack of coveralls. I picked on up to inspect it, thinking it might be nice to cover up my outfit that was feeling less and less professional by the second.
“Good thinking,” Anna said, grabbing a pair herself. All suited up, she pulled a laptop out of a bag and passed it to me.
“Here ya go, I guess you didn’t get a chance to bring yours.”
“Is there internet here?” I asked.
“Yep, car acts as a router. High tech,” she said with a wink. I took the computer from her silently.
The three of us trudged back to the pit, where the other two lost no time hopping in and surveying their turf.
“So,” I said awkwardly, “we’re supposed to see if we can find any other manuscripts? Or anything suggesting biochemical warfare?”
“Partly, yeah. I’m also going to be inspecting the dig site itself to try to disprove that they found any paper substances. Particles left behind, impressions in the ground, you know.” Jake was nodding his head, hands on his hip, looking like my dad about to mow the lawn on Sunday morning.
“You can do that?” I asked. He laughed, seeming to think I was being facetious. I wasn’t, I was just clueless, but I guess I’m glad he didn’t see it.
“I’ll just watch you both work for a while, and then I’ll start my write up. I need to observe to figure out my angle.” I tried to muster as much authority in my voice as possible, as though I’d done this kind of thing before.
“Yeah, okay,” Anna said absently. A couple of minutes later and some awkward waiting with my hands in my pockets, laptop waiting on a stool, the others had picked work spots and gotten to it.
The silence was broken only by the sound of shifting dirt, and the occasional ruffle or grunt from one of them. Subtle glances back to the car suggested that Grayson may not be joining us in the pit at all, which was a relief. I watched as Jake poked and prodded at the ground, a look of deep concentration on his face, compared to Anna’s digging with all the fervour of a child told to find treasure in a sandbox.
There was nothing for it. I went over to the stool, opened the laptop, and started typing. I wrote of the bureaucratic nature of science, as Grayson had put it in the car, and how publication could really be a business. How people had to fight to get their ideas heard. How certain things were deemed more or less important to the government for example, versus the public sphere.
Basically, I sat in coveralls, on a stool in a pit in Genoa, Italy, and wrote my term paper.
I tried to spin it so that the finding of a hairbrush, or a kitchen tool, would be treated very differently than the finding of a weapon, and whether or not it was a man or woman who discovered it really made no difference. Both men and women work in bureaucratic systems and in academics in today’s world, and both have access to controlling information. I wrote something like that, hoping if Grayson checked what I’d been working on, she’d see it as a government report on academia, since that was my only thread of legitimacy to work with where these strangers were concerned. After I finished I quickly emailed it to myself, hoping no-one would notice, and then I could just email my professor saying I couldn’t see the book I was supposed to but I’d written a paper for the deadline anyway.
By the time I’d finished my write up it was nearing six o’clock. Jake pulled up a stool next to me, and braced his forearms on his knees.
“I can’t see any evidence of a real dig here. I don’t get it,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said slowly, closing the laptop, having quadruple checked that I’d sent the work to my school email and saved it.
“I mean there wasn’t a dig here. This isn’t a real archeological site.”
“So where did the fake manuscripts come from then?” I asked, wondering how on earth he could tell.
“I don’t know. I also don’t know why Grayson wouldn’t have known that before we got out here.”
“Well, someone had to be the first to check,” I offered, blushing a little for fear this was a stupid comment. He looked at me, real suspicion entering his eyes for the first time.
“There are scientists in Italy, we didn’t need to fly out here to check it. Something’s up." In the setting sun, the green flecks in his brown eyes caught the light, and I realized he was younger than I had originally thought. He couldn’t have been out of school that long.
“Maybe Grayson is in on it?” But before Jake could reply to this, Anna joined us in our little corner of the pit.
“Anyone have any water?” Jake passed her some, and she gulped it down before saying, “I’ve been digging for almost three hours and haven’t found a single thing.”
I felt the familiar surges of panic making their way through my veins, making my ears ring and my head feel stuffy.
“Maybe the site has already been cleared out?” I offered, my voice squeaky. Anna passed me the water bottle, mistaking my rasp for thirst.
“How’s it going down here?” The three of us froze, staring at each other. Grayson had gotten out of the car, and hopped into the pit, the heels of her shoes sinking an inch or two in the loose dirt. She shuffled over to us, maintaining her look of authority.
“Yeah, good,” Jake said, “I think I’ve seen all I need to for a first look.”
“You’re only getting one look,” she drawled.
“I haven’t found any other artifacts,” Anna said, “I think whoever was here before cleared everything out.”
“And where would they have put it?” Grayson demanded. Anna fell silent, taken aback.
“I don’t think anyone really was here before. I think this is a fabricated dig site.” While I didn’t know Jake very well, there was no mistaking the challenge in his voice. Grayson’s eyes narrowed a little, and she took a couple steps closer to where Jake was seated beside me, so she could tower over him.
“And what are you suggesting, exactly, Jake?”
“When I’m working I go by Dr. Miller. I’m suggesting that they gave you a fake location to send you on a goose chase, or that perhaps those manuscripts don’t exist at all.”
“Then what would you suggest is in the maps room back in London?” She said dangerously.
“I couldn’t tell you, seeing as I never saw them in person.” A grin flickered on Grayson’s face. I caught Anna’s eye from where she was standing behind Grayson, and read the worry as a pretty bad sign.
“Who would want to send me on a wild goose chase?”
“You’re the government official, not me. Who exactly do you work for, Dr. Grayson? And what are you a doctor of, exactly?”
“I have a doctoral degree in political science, but it’s just a title. I work for the secretary of defence.” At this, Jake laughed in her face.
“The U.S. government is worried about some old scroll they dug up in the mountains that suggests some ancient civilization knew how to…what? Poison each other? This is a joke, right?” He stood up and strolled away from the group, shaking his head.
“Not poison,” she said quietly.
“Then what?” I asked, immediately realizing I’d broken my vow to myself to keep my stupid gob shut.
“Classified,” she said with an arched brow.
“So again, why fake the site?” Anna asked.
“The scientists who produced the documents could have said it was here to buy time until the exhibition,” I offered, since Grayson was still staring at me. She flicked an eyebrow up again, and finally broke her stare to turn her eyes on Jake.
“Are any of you wearing microphones?” She asked.
“No,” we all said unanimously. She exhaled wearily, rubbing a hand over her tired eyes.
“Alright. What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this pit. The scrolls outline a way of spreading a virus that was apparently employed all the way back then. Population control during ancient wartimes. Given the recent pandemic all over the world, that’s not the kind of thing the public needs to be seeing. But these scientists are convinced it needs to go public. You can see how that would strike fear into the hearts of everyone. They’d all be convinced they were the recent victims of a large-scale government attack.”
“Who are these scientists...archeologists, whoever?” Anna said, disgust colouring her words.
“We’re wasting time here, we can talk about this on the jet back to London. I want to see those manuscripts,” Jake said, and he strode to the edge of the pit and hauled himself out. I was shocked that Grayson didn’t counter his authority, and instead followed him.
I slept most of the plane ride back to London. I’d listened to them bicker and swap theories while we ate our way through a couple of pizzas that were waiting for us on the tarmac, but they’d mostly talked in circles. The more they talked, the less Grayson really seemed to know, and Jake kept saying he needed to see these artifacts.
With the time change back, it was about nine when we landed, and ten pm when we reached the university. I felt better, having slept a bit, but my head was still pounding with exhaustion from the events of the day.
We loaded ourselves back into the same elevator in the university library, and headed one level down. Instead of going to the conference room we headed down another hallway, where the map room was tucked away.
“They said they were still here,” Grayson said, leading us. She opened the door, and I would have been impressed by the collection of old maps had I not flown to the northern coast of Italy and back that afternoon.
“Where are they?” Jake asked harshly.
“I don’t know,” Grayson admitted.
“Dr. Grayson, have you worked with either Brandon or Adam previously?” Anna asked.
“No, I haven’t. I haven’t worked with any of you before.”
“Do you know who they work for?” Anna pressed.
“They just said fact checking and restoration. That could be government, a university,” Anna was trailing off.
“A museum, even,” Jake offered.
“I mean now that I think of it, you didn’t check any of our credentials,” Anna said, glaring at Grayson.
“Hang on a minute, I knew five people were supposed to be joining me in the map room. I don’t appreciate your suggestion that I’m incompetent. They’re probably out grabbing coffee.”
“But how do we know they weren’t just two random guys on the elevator?” Anna said, wringing her hands. I was beginning to think she was scared that her own butt was on the line here, but mine was too so…relatable.
“Oh, you’re back, perfect,” said a voice as the door opened, and Brandon and Adam filed in. The room was cramped with all of us standing in there.
“From what we can tell, they’re the real,” Adam said, indicating the manuscripts on a table at the other end of the room.
“They can’t be, the dig site was fake,” Jake said. “Let me see it.”
“I mean, obviously more rigorous testing has to be done than what we can do in a day, but it seems pretty authentic to me,” Brandon was saying as he led Jake over to where they’d been examining a very old, gross looking scroll of paper.
“Who do you two work for?” Grayson asked them, and they looked at her in shock.
“I work for the British Museum, in the restoration department,” Adam said a little uncertainly.
“I work for the university here, but I was hired as a consultant by the government,” Brandon said a little pompously.
“And who do you work for?” Grayson said, turning on me.
My throat burned. My eyes stung. I felt my head swimming, my palms prickling and my knees shaking. They were all staring at me now, and I knew there was nothing for it.
“It’s like Anna said…I was just a stranger on the elevator. I followed you guys to the conference room earlier half as a joke, and then I got too scared to leave cause I thought I’d get in trouble,” it was all just tumbling out of me, and I didn’t care that tears were tracking down my face. “I should never have gotten on the plane, I should have never even followed you down the hall off of the elevator. I was on my way to look at an old book for a sociology paper I’m supposed to submit this weekend. I'm nobody.”
To my absolute shock, Jake started to laugh. Not just a chuckle, he really laughed. Despite myself, I giggled a little.
“I really was supposed to write a paper on different perspectives on the publications in the archeology and anthropology world, but this took it to a whole new level. I did a write up at the dig site and emailed it to myself to submit for class, but I can delete it if you want.” I looked at Grayson, fear spiking in my gut again.
“I’ll read it first, but you clearly know nothing so I’m sure it’s harmless,” she said with an eye roll.
“Are you gonna lock me up?” I squeaked, fresh hot tears running into my mouth and off my chin.
“What for? So you came to Italy, big deal. We’ll draft up a non-disclosure agreement, track your phone for a few days, keep an eye on you…to be honest with something like this, it doesn’t really matter that one little girl knows.” I was a bit offended at being called a little girl, but I took her point. Even if I posted about today all over my social medias, I would be discounted pretty quickly by the public – especially given I didn't even have photos. Kinda like that history channel guy convinced aliens were responsible for historical landmarks.
“So…” I started, unsure what I was attempting to say.
Adam pulled a wad of cafeteria napkins out of his pocket, passing them to me to mop my tears. “It’s okay, no one thinks you meant anything by it. You got swept up in it. No big deal.”
“It still doesn’t answer my question though,” Jake insisted. “Where did these come from? If they are real, why do they surface now? Who found them? And if they’re fake, still who?”
“All I know is my boss gave me the assignment,” Grayson shrugged.
“What does that mean? You’re blaming the American government for this?” Anna said acidly.
I sat down in a chair tucked in the corner, glad I didn’t have to pretend I knew what was going on, or that I had any roll in this. “Can I go?” I asked.
“Yeah. We know where to find you,” Grayson said, exhaustion dripping from her own voice.
I left the room. I walked back down the hallway, boarded the elevator and left the university library. I walked back to my dorm, in a complete daze, completely unable to process the day I’d just experienced. I’d snuck into some top secret government meeting and flown to Italy to attempt to disprove evidence of an ancient virus spreading technique.
At least I’d still managed to write my paper. And I’d tried pizza in Italy, so that was pretty cool.
A week later, with an A on my paper that I’d turned in, headlines broke that people suspected foul play with the pandemic we’d just survived the year prior. People began to suspect that it was brought on by some government or other, but then other outlets said that was just paranoia. Others still said it was old news, and what were we supposed to do about it anyway?
I visited the British Museum, and saw the manuscript on display for everyone to see. A little blurb was posted beside it, saying how its authenticity was severely questioned, but it was no doubt real.
No one seemed to care. No one did ever seem to find out where those manuscripts really came from.